I loved Gerald Arpino very much. A choreographer and one of the founders of the Joffrey Ballet, Mr. Arpino died this week at his home in Chicago. He was 85. I learned a great deal from him. He was a man of kind and gentle heart. His intelligence was formidable and his choreography was both courageous and extraordinary.
In 1967 at age 13, I danced a principal role in “Elegy,” one of his ballets. Set to Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik’s extraordinary 22-minute anti-war symphony, Sinfonia Elegiaca, “Elegy” was the story of a Confederate soldier from the American Civil War, danced by Maximiliano Zamosa. Just when he is blindfolded and tied to a tree to be executed by a firing squad of Union soldiers, he has a flashback to the halcyon days with his wife and children.
I danced the role of his son and Charthelle Arthur and Susan Magno took turns dancing the role of his daughter. Noel Mason, as beautiful and elegant a ballerina as I have ever seen, danced the role of his wife. It is at the end of a dance between father and son that the flashback ends, the father is pulled back into the horror of his reality and executed.
The rehearsals were extraordinary experiences. Hard working and sweat filled with Mr. Arpino focused and intense, pushing us to breathe life into our characters, and never failing to seek the input of the dancers, including mine!
After the execution, there was a funeral scene. I had a small wooden sword tucked in my belt. At one point I break free of my mother’s hand and dance a solo wielding the sword because, as Mr. Arpino said, “You are following in your father’s footsteps and at the same time you are trying to kill those who killed him.”
Mr. Arpino turned me loose in my solo. He never told me what steps to do and instead sat back and freed me, allowing me to pour my all into it. The solo ended when my mother took the sword from me, determined that her son would not die the way her husband.
But Mr. Arpino taught me more about life than just ballet. He and others in the Joffrey helped me discover that those who are gay are no different than anyone else. I had fallen in love with the ballet when I was five and began training in earnest when I was eight. I was an ignorant little homophobe whose idea of homosexuality had about as much to do with reality as the Wizard of Oz. And, while my dancing career was cut short by a series of unforeseen circumstances, I left that career no longer burdened by the poison of homophobia. Mr. Arpino and others taught me that you you don’t have to be heterosexual to be a real man.
When Mr. Arpino died this week, the world lost a wonderful human being and a real man. Like I said, I loved him very much. Still do.